Making Decisions

What if you simply don’t care one way or the other? Mission Impossible versus Sherlock Holmes doesn’t matter to you as long as you get to spend time with your friends. You like both Indian food and Italian food, so you’d truly prefer to go wherever your date wants to go. This is all perfectly reasonable, so why should you have to make the decision? The answer is that it makes life simper for the rest of us, and it keeps the activity flowing along. If you have a definite idea about what to do, all we have to do is agree.

Ok, but given that you (and your friends) don’t have a strong preference, what basis do you have to differentiate between the options? You don’t, but you also don’t need one. In these situations, your best bet is simply choosing one at random. Choose one, but be flexible. Suggest frozen yogurt followed by Bananagrams back at your place. If it turns out that people want to play Mafia instead, great, you deserve credit for getting the ball rolling in the first place. Instead of placing the burden of providing entertainment on your companions, you are being fun. Contrast calling a friend and asking “What are you doing tonight?” with calling and saying “I’m going skinny dipping, want to come?”

Another potential problem is that your concern with making the absolute best decision causes you to equivocate excessively (if decision making is like a Taylor series, feel free to drop everything after the second term). Robert McNamara seemed to believe that it is more important to make a decision quickly than it is to make it correctly, always. While this is a bit dubious in the context of warfare, it definitely applies when you are hanging out with friends. This is true precisely because very little is at stake. Imagine playing a recreational game of beach volleyball and losing track of the score. Rather than backtracking to precisely tally the points, go ahead and make up some rough estimate. If you make the wrong decision and end up watching True Grit instead of The Social Network, it isn’t the end of the world (it’s not like you had to sit through The King’s Speech).

You don’t have to make perfectly rational decisions. In fact, the extra time required to make the best possible decision often outweighs the marginal benefit of choosing the better option (think Buridan’s Ass). To illustrate with a rather frivolous example, when deciding whether to eat a certain dessert or not, I often weigh how much I want it against the projected health consequences and such. If I haven’t made up my mind in fifteen seconds or so, then I don’t eat the dessert. One of the benefits of this system is that when I’m trying to eat well, I often don’t have to have much willpower; it doesn’t matter because all I have to do is stall.

Of course, sometimes it is important to make informed decisions. In these situations, you have no choice but to give the situation some thought ahead of time. If you plan to fire an employee or divorce your spouse, you ought to be sure about it and have a firm grounding for your stance. The alternative is allowing others to convince you on the fly, coaxing you toward a less-desirable and possibly illegitimate outcome.

The irony is that living optimally doesn’t mean optimizing every choice you make. It means developing the perspective to know when you can afford a suboptimal one or even a completely random one (probably in your choice of movies, probably not in your choice of presidents). It also means thinking through the important things ahead of time and not being pressured into rash last-minute decisions. Lastly, it is less about overriding everyone else and more about utilizing spontaneity while maintaining the flexibility to adjust.

-Robert